Nazir 48 - 54
The Sages and the Pathologist
If a nazir comes into contact with even the spine and skull of a corpse, his nezirut is interrupted because he has become ritually impure. He must go through a purification process and shave his hair before beginning all over again to fulfill his vow. In the course of its discussion of whether the mishna means "spine and skull" or "spine or skull" the gemara cites a statement made by Rabbi Yehuda (Tosefta Oholot 4:2) about the position of his master, Rabbi Akiva.
On six issues regarding ritual impurity did Rabbi Akiva differ from the majority of the sages but eventually conceded to them. One such issue was whether a skeleton made up of the parts of two corpses can generate the ritual impurity that comes from contact with a dead body. Rabbi Akiva even recalled an incident in which a box full of human bones was brought to the synagogue of the coppersmiths and placed in an unroofed part of the building. (Tosefot explains that this was a precaution to protect anyone entering the building from becoming impure by being under the same roof as the bones, if it should be ruled that they generate impurity.) The physician Todos and all the other medical experts -- the pathologists of their day -- entered the synagogue and after examining the bones determined that there was no complete spine from a single corpse. Since a complete spine made up of the parts of two corpses was a subject of dispute between Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, it was decided to take a vote in order to determine the status of the bones. They started with Rabbi Akiva and when he surprisingly declared that the bones did not generate impurity, they realized that he had reversed his position and had conceded to his colleagues.
If pathologists were needed to establish that the bones making up the spine were not from one corpse, points out Tosefot, we must assume that they were fragmented and required expert analysis. If this is so, he asks, how could they generate impurity, since only a few lines earlier we learned that a shattered spine cannot generate impurity (Tosefta Oholot 2:3)? In response, Tosefot refers us to the second half of the halacha cited form this Tosefta which states that if that shattered spine is in a grave, it does generate impurity because we have a tradition from Sinai that the grave serves as a combining agent. The issue before the sages, concludes Tosefot, was the status of a man who had come into contact with a grave in which these bones had been buried. Had there been enough of them to constitute the spine of a single person, they may therefore have generated impurity, and for this reason Todos and his pathologists were called upon for their expertise.
As a footnote the gemara cites Rabbi Shimon, another disciple of Rabbi Akiva, taking issue with this report of Rabbi Yehuda that their master had reversed his position on this issue. To bring home his point emphatically he declared: "Until his last day Rabbi Akiva held that even a spine from two corpses generates impurity. If he changed his position since his death, I am not aware of it!" Upon subsequent reflection that this statement smacked of irreverence for his master, Rabbi Shimon repented with so much fasting that his teeth turned black.
Back to the Prophets
A major dispute raged among the sages as to whether a nazir must interrupt his nezirut if he comes into contact with a quarter kav of the bones of a dead man. A later generation of sages decided that even though a quarter kav is sufficient to cause ritual impurity which prevents a kohen from eating terumah and prevents anyone from eating sacrificial meat, a nazir need only interrupt his nezirut if he contacts half a kav.
What gave this later opinion so much weight that it is recorded as law in our mesechta (49b) and in Mesehcta Oholot -- says Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi -- is the fact that the sages who stated it received this tradition from the Prophets Chaggai, Zecharia and Malachi.
This idea of sages quoting halachot from the last of the prophets appears in a number of places in the Talmud, and it deserves attention both in regard to the authority of such a source and the nature of its transmission.
Tosefot (Mesehcta Bechorot 58a) takes issue with Rashi who writes that what the sages received from Chaggai, Zecharia and Malachi they viewed as prophecy which must be accepted even without understanding its logic. The mention of prophecy, says Tosefot, is inaccurate, because no prophet was given a mandate to introduce prophecy into the halachic process; it would be more accurate to refer to this as a halachic tradition received from those prophets based on their Torah knowledge.
The other issue is an historic one. Although the text of the gemara -- that the tradition was received "from the mouths of Chaggai, Zecharia and Malachi" -- would seem to indicate that these sages heard it directly from those prophets, this is hardly likely. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chayot points out in regard to what the gemara says (Mesechta Megillah 3a) that Yonatan ben Uziel wrote that targum-translation of Nevi'im (The books of the Prophets) from the mouths of Chaggai, Zecharia and Malachi that it cannot mean a literal transmission from them to him, because he lived more than 300 years after them. In all such cases the meaning must be that the sages citing these prophets had a tradition from generation to generation going back to these prophets, although they did not hear it directly from them.